If you want to experience a fundamental Rappahannock County moment, ring up Triple Oak Bakery, reserve a slice of Mocha Dream cake and drive through Sperryville to visit with pastry chef Brooke Parkhurst in her tidy, sunlight-filled kitchen. Then chat with her about building a straw bale house, or about playing the banjo for an Irish folk band, or driving a school bus. Or better yet: ask her what her favorite chocolate is, and prepare for an education.
Parkhurst, 43, has an easygoing demeanor that is every inch the picture of a baker happy in her work. “Carrot cake is very popular, and the Mocha Dream cake, and the apple turnovers, of course — oh, and the cream puffs,” she says, focusing on those which sit on the table before her. They are feather light, filled with vanilla-flecked custard and artfully drenched in glistening Belgian chocolate. “They’re pretty killer.”
But the most remarkable thing about Triple Oak Bakery, aside from its owner, is that all of its products are gluten free. When she was in her 20s, Parkhurst discovered she had Celiac’s Disease, a disorder that prevents the absorption of nutrients from food and leaves people intolerant to gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley.
It was while working at the Natural Market Place in Warrenton that she realized there was a need for gluten-free products and saw an opportunity. Now she creates gluten-free versions of decadent food that sacrifice nothing in flavor, and teaches gluten-free cooking classes.
Parkhurst’s is something of a typically atypical Rappahannock Story; she has a rich personal history and a creativity that manifests itself as much through buttercream and sponge cake as through music. When she came to the county more than eight years ago, she says, she discovered a quality of life and community that allowed her natural talents to flourish.
Amidst the scents of blooming cocoa and vanilla, Parkhurst describes a life with “more tangents than a math class.” Her resume includes a stint homesteading in West Virginia, where she built her own straw bale house and lived off the grid, and years spent traveling the country as part of an Irish folk band that played primarily at Renaissance fairs (besides singing, Parkhurst plays banjo, the Irish flute, guitar and tin whistle). She still plays with her band, Tinsmith.
Parkhurst, who lives with her two teenage children and her partner in Huntly, discovered cooking at an early age, creating elaborate cakes as a teenager, but never sought formal culinary training. Her real training took place at Flint Hill’s Four and Twenty Blackbirds, where owners Heidi Morf and Vinnie DeLuise had “just so much patience with me,” Parkhurst says, as she learned the trade from her colleagues in the kitchen.
That professional background sets her food apart, says Sylvie Rowand, a French chef and owner of Laughing Duck Gardens and Cookery, based here in Washington. “Personally and professionally, I recommend her food with no hesitation, the sweets are as good as those with flour. I buy it for myself,” she says.
It’s that sort of support from a fellow chef that Parkhurst says is the best part about having a business in Rappahannock County. “I have gotten so much support from the community, it’s been really great,” she says. “In a place with more people, I might be doing better financially. But I almost never miss D.C.,” where she was raised, she says.
Supporting the ‘art’ of food
While Parkhurst’s personal story is compelling, she’s also part of a larger picture that’s emerging here. Rappahannock County, always famous for its beauty and long known for the renowned Inn at Little Washington, in recent years has begun distinguishing itself through its talented populace in two complementary areas: the arts, and the art of great food.
The “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” movement has sparked a new enthusiasm among consumers for produce from local farms like The Farm at Sunnyside and Mt. Vernon Farm. “I get a lot of my ingredients locally,” says Parkhurst, who sources her eggs and fruit from local farms like Muskrat Haven whenever possible. “I really believe in returning the support that I’ve gotten.”
Kevin Adams, president of the Rappahannock Association for the Arts and the Community (RAAC) and a painter himself, owns the Gay Street Inn with his partner in Washington, Virginia. Their Inn is filled with striking examples of local artwork. “We have a very supportive community of artists,” he says, “and outside of actual artists, there is a wide circle of people interested in the arts, who also support that community.” Adams moved to Rappahannock from D.C. almost five years ago to escape the noise and distractions of the city, and pursue painting. He left behind a position as a set painter and prop designer for the Washington Opera.
Adams compares picking up his weekly order of fresh vegetables from The Farm at Sunnyside to buying a painting by a local artist. It’s a community-wide effort. “There is an obvious effort by people who live here to support businesses here,” he says.
That’s crucial for Rappahannock’s food industry, says Rowand. “It’s challenging, in a place with so few people, that also lacks the infrastructure to really grow food-based businesses. I think investment can be hard to find because investors realize how few people there are, and believe they may not see a return on their investment.” Indeed, like many in Rappahannock County, Rowand and Parkhurst support the work they’re passionate about with second jobs – Parkhurst is a musical librarian for a private collection, and Rowand works part time for the Rappahannock Non Profit Center.
Parkhurst, who fills orders from customers all over the country and sells her sweets in several local stores, says that while the past year has been a difficult one, she looks forward to eventually expanding her business. “I would love to find a financial backer, and do more food besides pastries,” she says, and declares her first employee will without question be a bookkeeper. But she seems to have found equilibrium between hard work and her pursuit of happiness.
She compares it, of course, to cooking; although pastry is a precision discipline, she doesn’t really need to measure her ingredients anymore. In Rappahannock County, between music, food and family, she’s found a balance. As Parkhurst says with a smile, “That’s the art of it.”
Triple Oak Bakery is located at 1692A Lee Highway in Sperryville, in the former Cooter’s. Call ahead to make an appointment: 540-987-9122. Visit www.tripleoakbakery.com for a full menu and where to buy.